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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 6.21.17

06/21/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Iraq: "The Islamic State on Wednesday night destroyed Mosul's centuries-old Al Nuri Grand Mosque and its distinctive leaning minaret, one of Iraq's most famous landmarks, according to an Iraqi military statement."

* Perhaps the White House should care: "People connected to the Russian government tried to hack election-related computer systems in 21 states, a Department of Homeland Security official testified Wednesday."

* This seems like a good question: "The Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are questioning why the White House didn't suspend the security clearances of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and presidential adviser Jared Kushner, after questions arose about their contacts with Russian officials."

* A story we've been watching: "Vice President Mike Pence has chosen not to use an allied political committee to pay for the private attorney he retained last week to represent him in the special counsel probe of Trump associates' ties to Russia, two people close to Mr. Pence said Wednesday."

* A surprising story about Jay Solomon: "The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday fired its highly regarded chief foreign affairs correspondent after evidence emerged of his involvement in prospective commercial deals -- including one involving arms sales to foreign governments — with an international businessman who was one of his key sources."

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi answers questions during her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 8, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

The underappreciated detail about Nancy Pelosi's public standing

06/21/17 04:03PM

About a month ago, when Republicans were quite concerned about losing special elections in Montana and Georgia, the GOP leaders made no secret about their plan to prevail: they'd just keep complaining about Nancy Pelosi and count on conservative voters to have the conditioned, knee-jerk response.

"I think we'll see if it works," NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said. "I believe it still works."

And despite four congressional special elections in which Dems easily outpaced last year's Democratic performance in red districts in red states, there's apparently a growing consensus that the House Minority Leader has become a political problem for her party. NBC News wrote this morning, "Democrats have to admit they have a Pelosi problem."

Politico reports today some on Capitol Hill are drawing the same conclusion.

There is no challenge to Pelosi's leadership, and none is going to happen at this point, said numerous Democrats. But it's clear frustration is growing with the longtime Democratic leader following the extensive losses Democrats have suffered over the past half-decade.

And the fact that Republicans spent millions of dollars on TV ads tying Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff to Pelosi -- and the brand of progressive policies she represents -- shows that she will once again be an issue for Democratic challengers in the very districts that the party needs to win to make her speaker again.

Some Democrats want to replace Pelosi atop their caucus, as they have since last November's poor showing at the polls; they say there is no way to get back in the majority with her as their leader. And others who backed her in last year's leadership challenge have now flipped their stance.

"Nancy Pelosi is not the only reason that Ossoff lost," Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) added. "But she certainly is one of the reasons."

While I don't know the degree to which that's true, it's plainly obvious that for much of the right, the House Democratic leader is effectively a culture-war totem. We don't see multi-million-dollar ad campaigns attempting to tie various candidates to Chuck Schumer; we never really saw comparable attacks featuring Harry Reid; and we're long past the point at which connecting Dems to Barack Obama would be effective; but Nancy Pelosi, for reasons that deserve quite a bit more scrutiny, remains the villain of choice for Republicans and their allies to bash with glee.

There's just one salient detail that gets overlooked amid this discussion.

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Image: US President Trump leads listening session on human trafficking

After tough talk, Trump is poised to deliver for the drug industry

06/21/17 12:51PM

One of the few key areas on which Donald Trump broke with Republican Party orthodoxy was lowering prices on prescription drugs. In fact, shortly before taking office, he complained bitterly about the pharmaceutical industry's powerful lobbyists, and said drug companies are "getting away with murder."

For some on the left, this offered at least some hope that the Trump administration would be progressive on the issue, though those hopes faded soon after the president took office. In late January, Trump reversed course, saying he no longer wanted to use the government's buying power to lower costs, denouncing such a policy as "price fixing."

Vox explained at the time that the White House's approach appeared to amount to little more than "lowering taxes" and "getting rid of regulations."

That turned out to be exactly right. Five months later, the New York Times reports on a draft of an executive order the president intends to sign on drug prices that "appears to give the pharmaceutical industry much of what it has asked for."

The draft, which The New York Times obtained on Tuesday, is light on specifics but clear on philosophy: Easing regulatory hurdles for the drug industry is the best way to get prices down.

The proposals identify some issues that have stoked public outrage -- such as the high out-of-pocket costs for medicines -- but it largely leaves the drug industry unscathed. In fact, the four-page document contains several proposals that have long been championed by the industry, including strengthening drugmakers' monopoly power overseas and scaling back a federal program that requires pharmaceutical companies to give discounts to hospitals and clinics that serve low-income patients.

This is entirely in line with a Politico report from last week, which said Trump's approach to drug prices would be "industry friendly," and the White House does not intend to push the idea of using federal leverage to negotiate lower prices -- which is what the president vowed to do before he was elected.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.21.17

06/21/17 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* The Cook Political Report noted today that in this year's congressional special elections in Republican districts, Democrats have "outperformed the partisan lean of their districts by an average of eight points." The 2018 midterms are still far off, but if Dems can keep this up, they'll be well positioned to compete for the House majority.

* Donald Trump boasted last night that the special-election season is over and his allies went "5 and 0." His arithmetic is wrong: one of the five races was in California's 34th district, and a progressive Democrat won easily.

* The president is reportedly "returning to campaign mode," which includes headlining an "old-fashioned political rally" in Iowa today.

* There's been an enormous amount of buzz this week about a new campaign kick-off video from Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin ironworker, who's running as a Democrat against House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) next year. The chatter is understandable; the clip is well done.

* A new national poll from the Pew Research Center shows Trump's approval rating at 39%, which is roughly where it was in April.

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Image: Ryan Speaks on Trump's Leaking of Classified Information to Russians, James Comey

Paul Ryan's 'pep talk' on taxes was missing a key ingredient

06/21/17 11:20AM

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump boasted with great pride, "Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it's doing very well." The comment drew some blank stares for a simple reason: there is no tax bill.

Either the president was lying about an imaginary proposal "moving along in Congress," or he's so detached from the events going on around him that he actually believes his bogus claims. (The White House hopes to unveil a proper tax plan in September, following up on the one-page wish list Trump released a couple of months ago.)

As for the underlying policy goal of overhauling the tax code, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the debate, even among Republicans, is stuck, and many of the GOP's goals "are either dead or on political life support." Many stakeholders have all but given up on the idea that changes to the tax code will be approved this year.

It's against this backdrop that some key Republican leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), turned their attention to the issue yesterday. The Washington Post reported:

Vice President Pence and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan aimed to project a united front on tax reform at a joint appearance Tuesday, and in a sense, they did.

"The Internal Revenue Code is twice as long as the Bible, with none of the good news," Pence told a Washington conference of manufacturing magnates. An hour later, Ryan (R-Wis.) repeated the line nearly verbatim.

Indeed, the pair found plenty of common ground as they discussed GOP plans for changing the U.S. tax code -- a Republican priority for more than a decade and a top item on President Trump's agenda. But despite sharing broad principles and a punch line, the party leaders give little indication they'd resolved the internal Republican divisions that have plagued the reform effort from its inception.

Bloomberg Politics described Ryan's speech as little more than a "pep talk" for his allies, reminding them that tax reform is a worthwhile endeavor.

That's fine, as far as it goes, but policymakers don't need a morale boost; they need a plan. Ryan's pitch amounted to little more than a wouldn't-it-be-nice appeal.

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In this March 23, 2010, file photo, President Barack Obama is applauded after signing the Affordable Care Act into law in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)

GOP falsely claims Dems did 'exactly the same thing' on health care

06/21/17 10:46AM

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has raised concerns about his party's approach to health care and the process in which the GOP bill is being crafted, but he felt compelled to tell reporters yesterday that congressional Democrats did "exactly the same thing" when putting together the Affordable Care Act several years ago.

Reminded that his claim is ridiculously untrue, Paul replied, "I'm not going to debate you."

That's not surprising. People caught in a lie rarely welcome an in-depth discussion of the topic on which they're trying to deceive people.

To be sure, if Paul and his Republican colleagues were correct -- if Democrats really did write "Obamacare" in secret, bypass committees, refuse to hold hearings, shut out industry stakeholders and subject-matter experts, shield the proposal from any kind of public scrutiny -- then GOP officials would be justified to pursue their current strategy. Indeed, everyone involved could credibly blame Democrats for creating an awful standard for American governance.

Reality, however, is stubborn. The Huffington Post's Jonathan Cohn explained yesterday:

... Democrats spent more than a year debating their proposal out in the open. Five separate committees, three in the House and two in the Senate, held literally hundreds of hours of hearings and produced testimony from experts representing multiple philosophical views and officials from pretty much every group or industry involved with health care. Republicans had opportunities to question those witnesses and to propose amendments, some of which actually ended up in the legislation. [...]

[Congressional Democrats] used the traditional committee process -- if not so much to write the legislative language then at least to give the media, interest groups and ultimately the public an opportunity to understand what was up for discussion and eventually form an opinion on that.

To say that Democrats in 2009 did "exactly the same thing" as Republicans are doing now is completely bonkers.

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Image: Jeff Sessions

As Russia scandal percolates, AG Sessions the latest to lawyer up

06/21/17 10:09AM

In late May, the White House's Russia scandal reached the point at which Donald Trump found it necessary to lawyer up, hiring his own outside counsel to represent the president's personal interests. About three weeks later, Mike Pence, facing plenty of questions of his own, did the same thing.

The vice president told reporters last week, in response to questions about taking this step, "It's very routine. Very routine." That's not even close to being true: vice presidents very rarely have to hire outside counsel in the midst of a federal investigation.

It's even more unusual for attorneys general to hire their own lawyer, but the Washington Post reported that Jeff Sessions has done exactly that.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has been under fire in recent months for his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential race, has retained the services of Washington lawyer Charles J. Cooper, a longtime friend. [...]

Cooper, a partner with his own firm, Cooper & Kirk, would not say when he was retained by Sessions or whether he is representing Sessions in the special counsel's investigation into Trump and Russia.

If Cooper's name sounds familiar, there are two reasons why. First, Cooper, a leading figure in Republican legal circles for many years, was a top contender for solicitor general in the Trump administration before surprisingly withdrawing from consideration in February.

Second, Cooper was also seen during Jeff Sessions' testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week: he was the one sitting behind the attorney general. USA Today reported that Cooper helped prepare Sessions for the hearing.

He's a perfectly sensible choice for the A.G. Indeed, in this case, Pence and Sessions have both hired exactly the kind of outside counsel you'd expect people in their position to hire given the circumstances. The same cannot be said of the president, whose legal team includes, shall we say, some nontraditional choices.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-DEPARTS

Trump's infrastructure initiative is already failing

06/21/17 09:20AM

Much of the country might have missed it, but the White House kicked off "Infrastructure Week" in early June, which was intended to be a public-relations campaign in which Donald Trump touted his support for a popular idea: improving the nation's infrastructure.

It was, however, a flop. The White House's plan, by officials' own admission, is still months away from completion, which meant "Infrastructure Week" amounted to one fake signing ceremony, in which Trump put his signature on a glorified press release, asking Congress to privatize the nation's air-traffic control system.

And two weeks later, the idea appears to be effectively dead. The Hill reported:

A Senate panel has declined to include President Trump's controversial proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government in a must-pass aviation bill, according to the committee's chairman.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who leads the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the Senate's long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will not include the spinoff plan, citing the lack of support for the idea on his panel.

The Republican committee chairman told reporters yesterday, "No, we don't have the votes to pass that in our committee at the moment."

This doesn't come as too big of a surprise, since Thune specifically warned the White House that the privatization idea was unlikely to go anywhere. Perhaps Trump thought by throwing his weight behind the proposal, it'd create some momentum for the presidential priority.

It didn't. The president's political capital doesn't really exist in any meaningful sense.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump reportedly wants 'more heart' in GOP health care overhaul

06/21/17 08:40AM

Last week, before a White House meeting with Senate Republicans, Donald Trump said for the cameras that the chamber's health care plan will be "generous, kind, with heart." The presidential message came with subtext: Trump apparently believes the House GOP version, which he touted vigorously, wasn't generous or kind, and obviously lacked heart.

Indeed, once the cameras were gone, the president reportedly told senators the House-passed health care overhaul was "mean," "cold-hearted," and a "son of a bitch."

Remember, this was in reference to legislation Trump has championed and said he's eager to sign.

CNBC reported that Trump had a meeting with business leaders yesterday and reportedly raised similar concerns about the Senate bill.

The source said the president told the CEOs on Monday that the Senate's health-care bill needs "more heart." That would be a second known instance of the president criticizing the GOP plan in private meetings.

Soon after, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the behind-the-scenes quote, and the president's spokesperson made little effort to deny the report, saying Trump "clearly wants a bill that has heart in it."

Spicer added, "And as the Senate works its way through this bill ... any ideas are welcome to strengthen it, to make it more affordable, more accessible, and deliver the care that it needs."

Unless those ideas come from Senate Democrats, of course, in which case the 13 Republican men writing the secret legislation behind closed doors aren't interested.

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Image: Jon Ossoff

Dems come up short in special elections, but find a silver lining

06/21/17 08:00AM

In 2009, the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, there were five congressional special elections, including one in a red district in upstate New York, and Democratic candidates won all five. Was it evidence of Dems' national strength? Not really: a year later, Republicans won 63 U.S. House seats and took control of the chamber.

In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, there have been five congressional special elections, and as of last night, Republicans have now won four of them, including a key victory in a hard-fought race in Georgia.

Republican Karen Handel won the special congressional election in Georgia on Tuesday, fending off a challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff in the heavily Republican House district. [...]

With 99 percent of the vote counted, Handel leads Ossoff 53 percent to 47 percent in a race that many expected to be much closer.

Of course, there's more than one way to look at the results. We could, for example, focus on the fact that Democrats went all out to win Georgia's special election, hoping to use it as a national referendum, and came up short. The results are likely to be demoralizing in some circles.

On the other hand, it's equally true that over the last 25 years, no Democrat has ever come close to seriously competing in this red district -- formally represented by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom Price -- and this special election was easily the closest contest Georgia's 6th has ever seen. What's more, the Democrat was a 30-year-old, first-time candidate, who didn't actually live in the district, running against a Republican who'd already been elected to statewide office.

Let's also not forget that there was another special election in South Carolina's 5th yesterday -- a district that's even more Republican than Georgia's 6th -- and in that race Republican Ralph Norman prevailed over Democrat Archie Parnell by just three points, 51% to 48%.

Republicans have reason to celebrate, and winning is always more fun than losing. But taking a step back, there's a silver lining for the party that's come up short: if Democrats can seriously compete in red districts in red states like these, they can seriously compete almost anywhere.

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